Atlas Room, Visionary Africa, ANO Research Exhibition with David Adjaye, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, 2010

Artworks provide us with traces of cultural memory through the histories of specific objects as well as the shifts in the value and interpretation of those objects. Although, we can learn from comparative investigations of different cultures, there is no common narrative, no overarching single African history. Dividing artworks by ethnic group or ‘tribe’ seems specious when we read that even the ancient social and cultural unity among the Yoruba kingdoms and communities may be a post-1850 development.

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Artworks can tell us about the dynamism of social constructions and interactions. They can also tell us of how local cultural innovation provided the basis for engagements with the world beyond. Islamic influences in decorative arts and textiles can tell us about the trans-Saharan trade with Egypt. Christian influences in Kongo art tells us of 19th and 20th Century missionary activity.

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Looking at African objects in colonial museums and some of the expeditions that led to them being there, as well as the collection strategies of national museums provide us with narratives of colonialism and nation-building.

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